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Moving to the Country: A City Girl Finds Hope and Harvest at Meadowburn Farm

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Moving to the Country: A City Girl Finds Hope and Harvest at Meadowburn Farm

October 27, 2020

We first visited Meadowburn Farm four years ago, at the height of summer. My youngest daughter, Eta, was in my arms, just six months old, and my eldest daughter, Lowe, was three at the time. We were brought there by our old friend Quill Teal-Sullivan, who was then the head gardener of Meadowburn, in Vernon, NJ. After having written a dissertation on Helena Rutherford Ely, the influential gardener and writer who designed and planted the first Meadowburn gardens in the late 1800s, Quill was hired by the Gerard family, who have owned the property for the last two generations or so, to revive the gardens to their former glory. And she did. To such a glory.

Photography by Sandeep Salter, unless otherwise noted.

Above: The meadow with tufts of Queen Anne’s lace.

The memory of that first visit is like some distant mirage. The afternoon we arrived, we napped on the big lawn. We walked through the wildflower beds. Lowe helped Quill shake a bag of ladybugs onto the poppies to quell an infestation of aphids. We lit a fire and sat on the greenest grass in the warmth of the evening sun and watched Lowe climb the apple trees, circle the frog pond, and snatch at the air to catch fireflies.

Meadowburn&#8\2\17;s perennial flower beds in the Picking Garden, originally installed by Helen Ely Ruthford.
Above: Meadowburn’s perennial flower beds in the Picking Garden, originally installed by Helen Ely Ruthford.

I grew up in Camden Town in London and moved to New York at 18. Such sublime and sweet pastoral life was not yet a part of my life, or my worldview. But just one day of Meadowburn, and I was hooked.

We returned regularly throughout the years and eventually signed a lease for the old gardener’s house in late August of 2019. We settled in over the winter, going up every chance we could to take time away from the city and walk every which way through the surrounding woods, sitting in the moonlit fields night after night.

Poppies for the picking.
Above: Poppies for the picking.

On March 18th, 2020, we closed our Brooklyn Heights shops, Salter House and Picture Room, along with just about every other business in New York City as the Covid pandemic swept through the city. We packed as much of the inventory as we could into our Volvo and settled in to quarantine at Meadowburn for an unknown length of time. [N.B.: See Sandeep’s Brooklyn apartment here.]

Like millions of others this past spring, we struggled to keep our businesses afloat, all while frantically navigating Zoom school and an unfathomable amount of anxiety. It was around this time that the Gerards asked us if we would like to join them in reviving one of the vegetable plots in the upper garden. I was thrilled.

Me and my green bean joy! Photograph by Sita Bhuller.
Above: Me and my green bean joy! Photograph by Sita Bhuller.

Our first crop, sweet peas, failed. But after that, it was pretty smooth sailing! We fumbled our way through seedings, divided up watering and weeding duties, and formed friendships along the way. Soon enough, this Londoner, who has killed every house plant ever fostered and has not successfully grown a single sprout from seed since primary school Daffodil Days (and even then, her daffodils were always the weakest looking in the class), was sprouting everything she could get her hands on: tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, Brussel sprouts, watermelons, cucumbers, sage, and much much more.

I quickly learned choreography to seed the dirt and relished the hours spent in the garden. It was my time. The kids usually got bored after five minutes of following me around, and so would leave me in peace.

A sampling of the crops we grew this summer.
Above: A sampling of the crops we grew this summer.

As more of our crops came to maturity, we began to buy less and less at the grocery store. I became obsessed with preparing full meals solely from crops we had grown and felt immense satisfaction when I was able to achieve it. Gardening was fully nourishing, meditative—and absolutely practical. Any problems that arose could be literally weeded out, tossed onto the compost heap, or simply devoured and attempted again. As dilettante gardeners, there was nothing necessary, but something wholly precious, and certainly privileged about the whole endeavor.

My greatest triumph: delicious Siberian watermelon from the garden.
Above: My greatest triumph: delicious Siberian watermelon from the garden.

For a year now, we have settled in at Meadowburn. I have come to appreciate and rely on the rhythms of the garden. It is a century-old garden with thoughtfully designed cycles that are diligently maintained. I often find myself lamenting when the blooming season of one particular flower is ending, then turn my head to find another just stepping into the light. Meadowburn plays like a great symphony. In June the poppies resound in a passionate high-pitched percussion; in July, fields of Queen Anne’s lace unfurl with an easy oceanic gesture; August brings a polite reprieve with the upright hydrangeas; later, the clematis make way for October’s triumphant dahlias, blazing through the center of the garden like the sun’s own children.

Above: The heirloom dahlias at Meadowburn are some of the oldest in the country. Each spring, the tubers are taken from the root cellar where they have been stored for the winter, and planted in freshly tilled rows, just as they were the year before. When autumn rolls around, they are then cut and returned to the cellar. Go here for more info.

The people that inhabit Meadowburn—the Gerards; the Clarks, who run Meadowburn’s historic dairy farm; the DeVries, who are going on three generations of groundskeepers—care deeply for it and have devoted much of their lives to shepherding its responsible use. They are witness to a much greater and longer cyclical epic, one I can only imagine. But I’m grateful to have lived at Meadowburn in these gravest of times. While we may have lost much on the business balance sheet, we have gained immeasurable wealth from the dirt.

My kids bored easily helping me and would often wander away, leaving me in peace to tend to the garden.
Above: My kids bored easily helping me and would often wander away, leaving me in peace to tend to the garden.

And when it comes to lessons from the earth, I know one thing for certain: for me, it can only be the beginning. Quill told me that Helen Rutherford Ely’s work “encouraged generations of women to develop gardens around their homes as a place where they could have autonomy and express their creativity.” I have found a means to that in some small way through tending to these vegetables, and am humbled to join the many generations of women who have loved, labored, and worked with Meadowburn’s soil.

I’m currently in the midst of tending to a more frost-tolerant crop, and a 75-percent tomato-based diet. I’ll be watching for the lilac buds, and will be ready to seed again come April.

For more farm visits, see:

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